It was a mid-October night in New York City in 1969. My first wife Bonnie and I, both of us music junkies, went out to Brooklyn to catch a show featuring Joy Of Cooking (a country-rock group from Berkeley), Allen Ginsberg and headliners The Band.
We hadn’t seen The Band at their Woodstock Festival appearance two months earlier because one of Bonnie’s friends got married that weekend and my wife was in the wedding party. I used to make a joke about how I don’t have that particular wife anymore, but in retrospect I don’t think I would have been a happy camper at the big dairy farm gathering. Because I don’t camp. My idea of roughing it is staying in a hotel where room service ends at 11 p.m.
Thinking back to that magical night in the Opera House of the Brooklyn Academy Of Music, a couple of visuals waft into the forefront of my memory. One is of Allen Ginsberg alone in the spotlight chanting to the accompaniment of his harmonium. A marvelous sight – and sound. Then The Band. We could not believe how accurately these musicians were able to reproduce the ethereal, mystical resonances of those first two albums in live performance.
I had imagined it was all studio production. By this time even The Beatles had given up trying to bring their complex music to the stage. But here were these veteran road warriors from Saugerties choreographing musical chair switches of instruments, trading off vocal leads and making it all look easy.
Turns out it was not as facile as it appeared, as Levon recalled in his 1993 biography: “The shows took enormous concentration to make it sound like we wanted it to, like on the record, and I felt under a lot of pressure in those days.”
The weight is off now, Levon. Godspeed on your journey home.
A beautiful elegiac farewell song by my dear friend Jerry Joseph.